In God's House (Part II): Behind the Scenes with S. Brent Plate

Today's post is a follow up to Barton Price's review of In God's House: The Religious Landscape of Utica, New York. Here we get a behind the scenes look at what inspired the film from the film's producer S. Brent Plate. In case you missed it yesterday, the trailer can be found here.

S. Brent Plate

In 2008 I moved to Central New York, settling in not far from the rust belt city of Utica and the famed Erie Canal. As I learned about the city, its history, and its varieties of religious life, I realized this was the ideal laboratory for students to learn about lived religion. With my interests in visual and material cultures, especially as they intersect in the United States, there was plenty to look at, listen to, discuss, and ask questions about.

I began taking Hamilton College students on field trips to Utica. As we explored the neighborhoods, we found buildings that seemed out of place, full of people from remarkable backgrounds: Bosnians who had fled a war-torn land and were able to create a gorgeous mosque in the city center; ethnic Karen from Burma leaving political turmoil to join mainline Baptist and Episcopalian churches; a spectacular Khmer Buddhist temple in the midst of the poverty-struck Cornhill neighborhood; while the oldest Catholic church in town conducts mass in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. My students and I began using a Google Maps platform to chart images of religious sites, as well as scans of old maps and documents from the area. The medium was a good initial foray into the "religious landscape of Utica," but had a number of limitations. (I'll be revisiting this data for inclusion on the Pluralism Project's site later this summer.)

Quan Am Buddhist Temple (former St. Paul's
Episcopal  Church), Utica, NY.
Photo by Robert Knight
A few years later, Robert Knight came to the area as an assistant professor of photography at Hamilton College. With a background in architectural studies and photography, Rob has been interested in photographing spaces, and documenting the lives of people in everyday environments, especially as those people and places exist across time. Rob approached me with the initial idea of doing a joint project photographing and interviewing religious clergy in the area, along with the religious spaces they worked in. Rob has created an exhibition of some of the beautiful large-format photographs he has taken, some of which can be seen here. The film grew somewhat organically from our interviews, archival research, and photography.

The resulting film project, "In God’s House," explores the sacred spaces of the rust belt city of Utica, once a thriving port on the Erie Canal and now a vital refugee relocation center. In the midst of changing demographics, the buildings of bygone eras continue to be adapted by the current users that embody them. Our film documents many of the changes to the neighborhoods of Utica, and to the buildings that have housed differing populations of religious congregants. In many ways, the film charts in microcosm the larger demographic shifts of U.S. religious life, as wave after wave of immigrant groups settle and establish religious environments for social and spiritual support, and communal gathering.

The film documents several spaces and the ways they have transitioned over time: a Bosnian mosque operating in a converted Methodist church; Jewish synagogues, one Reform and one Conservative, now meeting under one roof due to economic pressures; an historic 1819 Baptist church revitalized through the welcoming of Burmese refugees; a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in a retrofitted Episcopalian church; and an African-American church in the midst of Utica’s former Jewish quarter.

The film's website, including the film trailer, can be found here. We will be updating the website with screening dates for next year as we are currently working on finalizing schedules with several universities and film festivals.